“He’s upstairs, asleep,” she replied, pulling back. “I should wake him up, tell him you’ve come home. Every night for the past three months, he’s taken his truck down the back roads, looking for you. Sometimes he doesn’t come home until morning.”

Stunned, I blinked back tears. Mom gave me a stern look, the one I got right before I was grounded. “You wait right here until I get him, and then, young lady, you can tell us where you’ve been while we’ve been going crazy. Ethan, honey, let’s put you to bed.”

“Wait,” I said as she turned away, Ethan still clinging to her robe. “I’ll come with you. Ethan, too. I think everyone should hear this.”

She hesitated, looking down at Ethan, but finally nodded. We turned to leave together, when a noise on the stairs froze us in our tracks.

The changeling stood there, his eyes narrowed, his lips peeled back in a snarl. He wore Ethan’s bunny pajamas, and his small fists were clenched in rage. The real Ethan whimpered and pressed into Mom’s side, hiding his face. Mom gasped, her hand going to her mouth, as the changeling hissed at me.

“Damn you!” it shrieked, stamping a foot into the ground. “Stupid, stupid girl! Why’d you have to bring him back? I hate you! I hate you! I—”

Smoke erupted from its feet, and the changeling wailed. Twisting in on itself, it disappeared into the smoke, shouting curses as it grew smaller and smaller, and finally vanished altogether.

I allowed myself a small smirk of triumph.

Mom lowered her hand. When she turned to me again, I saw understanding in her eyes, and a terrible, terrible fear. “I see,” she whispered, glancing at Ethan. She trembled, and her face was ashen. She knew. She knew all about Them.

I stared at her. Questions rose to mind, too jumbled and tangled to make out. Mom seemed different now, frail and frightened, not the mother I knew at all. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I whispered.

Mom sat on the couch, pulling Ethan up with her. He snuggled into her side like he was never going to let go. “Meghan, I…That was years ago, when I met…him…your father. I barely remember it—it seemed more like a dream than anything.” She didn’t look at me as she spoke, lost in her own world. I perched on the edge of the armchair as she continued in a faint voice.

“For months, I convinced myself that it hadn’t happened. It didn’t seem real, what we did, the things he showed me. It was just one time, and I never saw him again. When I discovered I was pregnant, I was a little nervous, but Paul was so happy. The doctors had told us we would never have children.”

Paul. My mind stirred uneasily at that name. It felt like I should recognize it. Then Mom’s words sank in and it hit me: Paul had been my father, or at least married to my mom. I didn’t remember him, not in the slightest. I had no idea who he was, what he looked like. He must’ve died when I was very young.

The thought made me sad, and angry. Here was another father that Mom had tried to hide from me.

“Then you were born,” Mom continued, still in that distant, faraway voice, “and strange things started happening. I’d often find you out of your crib, on the floor or even outside, though you couldn’t walk yet. Doors would open and close on their own. Items went missing, only to show up in the oddest places. Paul thought the house was haunted, but I knew They were lurking about. I could feel Them, even though I couldn’t see Them. It terrified me. I was afraid They were after you, and I couldn’t even tell my husband what was going on.

“We decided to move, and for a while, things were normal. You grew into an ordinary, happy child, and I thought everything was behind us. Then…” Mom’s voice trembled, and tears filled her eyes. “Then there was that incident in the park, and I knew They had found us again. Afterward, after everything had died down, we came here, and I met Luke. You know the rest.”

I frowned. I remembered the park, with its tall trees and little green pond, but I couldn’t recall what “incident” Mom was talking about. Before I could ask, Mom leaned forward and gripped my hand.

“I wanted to tell you for so long,” she whispered, her eyes wide and teary. “But I was afraid. Not that you wouldn’t believe me, but that you would. I wanted you to have a normal life, not to live in fear of Them, to wake up every morning dreading that They had found you.”

“Didn’t really work, did it?” My voice came out hoarse and raspy. Anger simmered, and I glared at her. “Not only did They come for me, but Ethan got pulled in, as well. What are we going to do now, Mom? Run away, just like the last two times? You saw how well that worked.”

She leaned back, hugging Ethan protectively. “I…I don’t know,” she stammered, wiping her eyes, and I immediately felt guilty. Mom had gone through the same things I had. “We’ll think of something. Right now, I’m just glad you’re safe. Both of you.”

She gave me a tentative smile, and I returned it, though I knew this wasn’t over. We couldn’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend the fey weren’t out there. Machina might be gone, but the Iron Kingdom would continue to grow, poisoning the Nevernever, little by little. There was no way to stop progress or technology. Somehow, I knew we couldn’t escape them. Running away just didn’t work—they were too stubborn and persistent. They could hold a grudge forever. Sooner or later, we would have to face the fey once more.

Of course, sooner came more quickly than I expected.

“ETHAN,” MOM SAID AFTER a while, once the adrenaline had worn off and the house was still, “why don’t you run upstairs and wake Daddy? He’ll want to know that Meghan is home. Then you can sleep between us if you want.”

Ethan nodded, but at that moment, the front door creaked open, and a cold breeze shivered across the room. The moonlight beyond the door shimmered, consolidating into something solid and real.

Ash stepped over the threshold.

Mom didn’t look up, but Ethan and I jumped as my heart began to thud loudly in my chest. Ash looked different now, the cuts and burns healed, his hair falling softly around his face. He wore simple dark pants and a white shirt, and his sword hung at his side. Still dangerous. Still inhuman and deadly. Still the most beautiful being I’d ever seen. His mercury eyes found mine, and he inclined his head.

“It’s time,” he murmured.

For a moment, I stared at him, not understanding. Then it hit me all at once. Oh, God. The contract. He’s here to take me to the Winter Court.

“Meghan?” Mom looked from me to the door, not seeing the Winter prince silhouetted against the frame. But her face was tight; she knew something was there. “What’s happening? Who’s there?”

I can’t go now, I raged silently. I just got home! I want to be normal; I want to go to school and learn to drive and go to prom next year. I want to forget faeries ever existed.

But I gave my word. And Ash had upheld his end of the bargain, though he almost died for it.

Ash waited quietly, his eyes never leaving mine. I nodded at him and turned back to my family.

“Mom,” I whispered, sitting on the couch, “I…I have to go. I made a promise to someone that I would stay with Them for a while. Please don’t worry or be sad. I’ll be back, I swear. But this is something I gotta do, or else They might come looking for you or Ethan again.”

“Meghan, no.” Mom gripped my hand, squeezing hard. “We can do something. There has to be a way to…keep Them back. We can move again, all of us. We—”

“Mom.” And I let my glamour fade away, revealing my true self to her. It wasn’t difficult this time, to manipulate the glamour surrounding me. Like the roots in Machina’s domain, it came so naturally I wondered how I ever thought it hard. Mom’s eyes widened, and she jerked her hand back, pulling Ethan close. “I’m one of Them now,” I whispered. “I can’t run from this. You should know that. I have to go.”

Mom didn’t answer. She kept staring at me with a mix of sorrow, guilt, and horror. I sighed and rose to my feet, letting the glamour settle on me again. It felt like the weight of the entire world.

“Ready?” Ash murmured, and I paused, glancing up toward my room. Did I want to take anything with me? I had my clothes, my music, little personal items collected in my sixteen years.

No. I didn’t need them. That person was gone, if she had been real in the first place. I needed to figure out who I really was, before I came back. If I came back. Glancing at Mom, still frozen on the couch, I wondered if this would ever be home again.

“Meggie?” Ethan slid off the couch and padded up to me. I knelt, and he hugged me around the neck with all the strength a four-year-old could muster.

“I won’t forget,” he whispered, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. Standing up, I ruffled his hair and turned to Ash, still waiting silently at the door.

“You have everything?” he asked as I approached. I nodded.

“Everything I need,” I murmured back. “Let’s go.”

He bowed, not to me, but to Mom and Ethan, and walked out. Ethan sniffled loudly and waved, trying hard not to cry. And I smiled, seeing their emotions as clearly as a beautiful painting: blue sorrow, emerald hope, scarlet love. We were connected, all of us. Nothing, fey, god, or immortal, could sever that.

I waved to Ethan, nodded forgiveness at Mom, and shut the door, following Ash into the silver moonlight.


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Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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